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CRITICAL GEOGRAPHIES MODULE

Korea–Latin America: Forgotten Geographies of the Korean War

Introduction

On June 13, 2002, two teenage girls near a U.S. military base in Uijeongbu, Korea were killed by a vehicle in a U.S. army convoy.  Five months later in Vieques, a little girl on the island died of cancer caused by U.S. nuclear testing, which had been conducted in Vieques since the 1940s.  These tragedies, a few among a countless many, sparked on-going demonstrations demanding the removal of U.S. military bases on both sides of the Pacific. In fact, these intimate transpacific connections are part and parcel of the geographic reach of the unending Korean War. The Korean War was a watershed in Latin American, Latinx, and Chicanx participation in the U.S. military: the six thousand soldiers of the 65th Infantry (an all-volunteer Puerto Rican regiment of the United States Army), known as the “Borinqueneers,” the “Colombian Battalion,” largely made up of forcibly recruited Afro-Colombian men, and Chicano soldiers from Texas and California. Additionally, most, if not all, Korean migration to Latin America since 1950 can be traced to the Korean War and its reverberations. Indeed, the first Korean immigrants to arrive in South America were North Korean prisoners-of-war who chose to relocate to a “third” non-aligned country. When South Korea began to send migrants to South America in the 1960s, these former POWS became the nucleus of these Korean diasporic communities. Although Korean migration to Latin America is most often read as “labor migration” that has little to do with war, it is important to see these waves of migration in relation to the permanent nature of the Korean War, that is, as militarized diaspora.

 

Remembering Latin America as part of the geography of the Korean War subverts not only the war’s putative spatial dimension, but also its temporal periodization. Indeed, the Korean War was marked by an imperial governmentality whose dominant logics have operated (and continue to do so) in and on Latin America since at least the mid-nineteenth century through a flexible combination of settler imperial tactics and capitalist domination. The history and infrastructure of U.S. settler imperialism unfolds, builds upon, and continues transoceanically – from indigenous dispossession in the Americas and Latin America as “empire’s workshop,” to the Pacific as U.S. experimental war laboratory back to the counter-insurgency low-intensity warfare conducted in Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s and now to the War on Terror in the Middle East. This circuitous spatial and temporal cartography of U.S. empire demands that we examine the forgotten geographies of the Korean War.

Keywords

Laboratory of empire

Militarized diaspora

The global left

Dirty wars

Empire of bases

Solidarity

Networked empire

Study Materials

By deploying the concept of “proxy” as a framework in which to understand the Korean War, this chapter examines Chicano literature to explore how Chicano veterans negotiated multiple registers and overlapping geographies of the Korean War. Through a close reading of the literary works of Rolando Hinojosa (Korean Love Songs and The Useless Servants) and Luis Valdez (I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges and Zoot Suit), the author shows how Chicano cultural production provides complex counterhegemonic representations of the Korean War and interrogates U.S. racialization–in particular the representation of the United States as a benevolent liberator–that shape dominant histories of the war. First, Chicano cultural production constructed Asia as an “alternative, proxy space” for building kinship. These Asian-Latino relations formed new intimacies that go beyond state-sanctioned formations of white heteronormative imperatives of family and kinship. Second, it unearths the racial contradictions underlying Cold War operations whereby Mexican American soldiers were disproportionately conscripted for the war, often facing imprisonment when refusing to enlist. Third, by subverting academic disciplinary limits, this chapter proposes potentialities for a trans-disciplinary study of the Korean War.

This essay examines Rolando Hinojosa’s literary works, which juxtapose the Mexican-American War and the Korean War, contextualizing them as part and parcel of a continuous U.S. imperial project. It places the 38th parallel and the U.S.-Mexico border in critical conversation and explores the variegated cross-racial representations in Hinojosa’s Korean War trilogy—Korean Love Songs, Rites and Witnesses, and The Useless Servants—from Japanese and Korean civilians to North Korean and Chinese soldiers. Through this representative process, this article illustrates how Hinojosa’s trilogy deploys an Orientalist narrative technology that offers an anticolonial and antiracist critique, while reiterating and perpetuating elements of the colonial narrative taxonomy. Hinojosa’s literature also problematizes the ways in which particular segments of the Chicanx population benefitted from a liberal Cold War racial exclusivity that furnished narrow modes of social advancement for certain peoples of color.

These two short stories by Puerto Rican writer Emilio Díaz Valcárcel offer a fictionalized lens on his own experiences as a soldier in the 65th Infantry, an all-volunteer Puerto Rican regiment of the U.S. Army during the Korean War. The 65th Infantry, also known as the “Borinqueneers,” comprised 61,000 Puerto Ricans who fought from the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 until the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement three years later. “Proceso en diciembre” (Trial in December) is based on an actual historical event. In December of 1954, a year and a half after the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, one hundred and sixty-two Puerto Ricans of the 65th Infantry were arrested on allegations of breaches of military discipline. Out of those arrested, ninety-five soldiers were court martialed and ninety-one were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to eighteen years of hard labor. Under the pretext of increasing combat productivity and integrating soldiers, the U.S. military replaced the officer staff of the 65th Infantry with white Anglo officers. Dissatisfied with the conduct and performance of the Puerto Rican regiment, the new colonel in charge issued orders, which included the following: the unit was to stop calling itself “Borinqueneers,” the rations of rice and beans were to be cut, Spanish was to be discouraged, and the soldiers were to shave off their mustaches. This resulted in the Puerto Rican soldiers questioning their role and status in the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. empire. “El soldado Damián Sánchez” (“Private Damián Sánchez”) narrates the camaraderie and friendship between a Puerto Rican and Korean solider. The timeline of the story takes place after the establishment of the “new order,” which did not stop with the replacement of Puerto Rican officers of the 65th Infantry or the implementation of regulations concerning the Puerto Rican soldier’s body, food, and language, but eventually ended with the complete disbandment of the Puerto Rican regiment. As the literary text describes, the “new order” leaves Damián alone in a hostile company of white North Americans, except for the sole companionship of his only friend in the unit -- the Korean soldier Kim Wan. By identifying with their Korean counterparts, Puerto Rican soldiers come to clearly see their position as colonialized and racialized subjects and thereby begin to challenge and resist U.S. state ideologies.

Mexican Marxist writer and activist José Revueltas’ novel Los motivos de Caín [Cain’s Motives], by shuttling between Los Angeles, Tijuana, and Korea, traces the connections between the U.S. conquest of Mexico, U.S. systematic racism, indigenous dispossession in the United States and Mexico, anti-Asian racism in Mexico, and U.S. atrocities during the Korean War. The protagonist, Jack Mendoza, is a Chicano soldier who deserts the U.S. army while serving in the Korean War after a traumatic experience in which he was ordered to torture a North Korean soldier of part Mexican heritage. In Revueltas’s novel, the humanization of the communist enemy, that is, the moment when the enemy is no longer the Other, causes a traumatic breakdown of the protagonist. Jack, after torturing Kim – the North Korean soldier who was born to a Mexican mother and Korean father and joined the North Korean military because of his communist beliefs – deserts the U.S. military and escapes to Tijuana with help from his Chicano friends in California who are communists themselves. In Los motivos de Caín, the most abject Other turns out to be part of oneself: the North Korean soldier is none other than a fellow Mexican.

Afro-Colombian writer and anthropologist Manuel Zapata Olivella’s seminal novel Chambacú, Black Slum, is set in the place from which it receives its name: Chambacú, an Afro-diasporic community outside Cartagena. The novel powerfully illustrates the genocidal state violence against as well as the quotidian erasure and marginalization of Afro-Colombian peoples in a country that constantly denies the existence of its Black communities despite having the third largest Afro-descendant population in the Americas. The first scene of the novel opens with the military invasion of the Afro-Colombian community of Chambacú, with the military attempting to violently impress men to fight in the Korean War, a war in which they have no investment. In a later scene, after the torture of one of the protagonists who refuses to be conscripted, the military returns to Chambacú to evict the people from their homes so that they can be razed and replaced by a tourist resort. Faced with this process of gentrification, that is ethnic cleansing and dispossession, the people in the Afro-Colombian community rise up in resistance against the settler colonial state of Colombia.

Containing two texts from Rolando Hinojosa’s Korean War trilogy—Korean Love Songs and Rites and Witnesses —From Klail City to Korea with Love poignantly depicts the experiences of Mexican Americans who both live the daily practice of U.S. settler colonialism and imperialism in their homeland on the Texas border and U.S. imperial war on the Korean peninsula. Korean Love Songs, Hinojosa’s only book of poetry, illustrates the horror of war through the memories of the fictional narrator, Klail City native Corporal Rafe Buenrostro. The poems in Korean Love Songs portray the violence of war, alternative kinships, and the racial calculus of the U.S. military-industrial complex. Composed of conversational fragments, Hinojosa’s novel Rites and Witnesses alternates between an examination of the daily lives of Mexican Americans on the Texas border punctuated by systematic U.S. systematic racism, and the experiences of Chicano soldiers in the Pacific during the Korean War.

Korean American writer Paul Yoon’s elliptical novel narrates the tumultuous journey of Yohan, a twenty-five-year-old North Korean POW refugee who leaves his country after the armistice on the Korean peninsula in 1953, to start a new life in a small town on the coast of Brazil. By illustrating the protagonist’s attempts to connect with other residents of the Brazilian town, the novel highlights Yohan’s struggle to overcome the traumas of war and partition, as well as confront the sociopolitical fabric of Brazil. This novel unearths the obscured history of North Korean prisoners-of-war who chose to immigrate to South America as an alternative “third” nonaligned country.

The title of Im Heung Soon’s documentary Good Light, Good Air (2018) brings together the two overlapping histories of Gwangju– which means ‘good light’ – and Buenos Aires –meaning ‘good air.’ On April 30th, 1977, 14 mothers sent a letter asking the military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla for the whereabouts of their disappeared children and began to gather in silent protest in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires. Known as the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, this spurred a mass movement that continues today. Around the same time, on May 18th, 1980, citizens of Gwangju, South Korea, launched a mass resistance movement against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan. The South Korean military retaliated in full force resulting in the massacre and disappearance of thousands of Gwangju citizens. The documentary brings to light the mirroring of the histories of Argentina and South Korea, that were both Global South countries violently conscripted into dirty wars against communism. The missing in Gwangju and the desaparecidos (disappeared) in Buenos Aires attest to the haunting presence and continuation of war and violence.

Taking its title from his 2017 installation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Argentine visual artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s documentary, The Theater of Disappearance, explores across the world the regime of frozen conflicts, peace as permanent war, and naturalized slow violence. The first part of the documentary illustrates daily life in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which encompass surreal instances of latent war. The second part disrupts the conventional perception of time, by speeding up and slowing down a portrait of a Moroccan pottery workshop saturating quotidian actions with uncanniness and wonder. The third part manipulates space through use of a hand camera that simulates a long single take of connected spaces, when in actuality the shots are of scattered spaces across the world.

Questions

  1. Why has Latin America/ns been “forgotten” in the dominant study and institutionalized state memory of the Korean War? How would unearthing and centering these histories, experiences, and memories question, complicate, and refract narratives of the Korean War?

  2. What are the connections between US imperial policy in Korea and US neo/colonial rule of Latin American countries?

  3. How does the infrastructure of US empire and war not only connect unlikely spaces – the Puerto Rican Island and the Korean peninsula – but also the bodies and lives of racialized subjects, including Latin American, Latinx, Chicanx soldiers and Korean military workers?

  4. How did the Korean War provide the necessary geopolitical and biopolitical conditions for the territorial and labor extraction of Latin American ecologies and peoples? 

  5. What is the connection between the dominant cartographical imaginary of the Korean War and the ways in which we normalize the destinations and routes that are most often counted in imaginings of the Korean diaspora? (For example, the Korean diaspora in Latin America or the North Korean diaspora in Europe are very rarely acknowledged, while Korean North American diasporas are understood as paradigmatic of Korean diaspora.) 

Image: Che Guevara in North Korea, December 1960.

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